Media misleads public on birthright citizenship

Jeremy Beck Director, NumbersUSA's Media Standards Project
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On the first day of the 112th Congress, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) of the House Immigration Subcommittee introduced the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011, H.R. 140, which would amend “the Immigration and Nationality Act to consider a person born in the United States ‘subject to the jurisdiction of the United States for citizenship at birth purposes if the person is born in the United States of parents, one of whom is: (1) a U.S. citizen or national; (2) a lawful permanent resident alien whose residence is in the United States; or (3) an alien performing active service in the U.S. Armed Forces.” With the Congressional balance of power now in the hands of those who favor tighter immigration controls, the Birthright Citizenship Act (introduced in previous years by former congressman, and current governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal) is a front-page national immigration story — and a source of great confusion for the journalists who cover it. Here are just a few of the recent gaffes made by reputable papers.

USA Today blatantly misinterpreted H.R. 140, describing it as a “revision of the 14th Amendment,” even when the bill itself states that it amends section 301 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution must have confused their readers when they stated something as a fact in one sentence, then referred to it as an “interpretation” in the next. Their reporter wrote that legislators “are targeting the 14th Amendment, which automatically grants U.S. citizenship to babies born on U.S. soil even if their parents are here illegally. The lawmakers disagree with that interpretation, and they are attempting to force the issue into the courts for a decision.”

A blog in The Hill, a Washington, D.C. paper, reported that Rep. King “thinks he’ll be able to pass a bill out of the House to end the Constitution’s birthright citizenship for U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants” in one sentence, then quoted Rep. King stating the exact opposite: “‘It’s not a constitutional provision. It doesn’t require a constitutional amendment. We can fix it by statute,’ he said.” Rep. King’s bill clearly states that it “amends the Immigration and Nationality Act,” and makes no mention of changing the Constitution.

The Immigration and Nationality Act is the federal statute that grants automatic citizenship to anyone born in the United States. It uses similar language to the 14th Amendment regarding persons born in the United States and “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” A serious and scholarly debate over the meaning of “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” is ongoing and by no means settled. Some scholars insist that the phrase has no real meaning of its own, but rather is essentially another way of saying “born in the United States.” Other scholars conclude that the authors of the Fourteenth Amendment did NOT want to grant citizenship to every person who happened to be born on U.S. soil. Both sides have evidence to support their claims, but the only opinion that matters is that of the Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on this specific question.

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) may have thrown reporters off the scent when he ignited a media firestorm last summer by telling Fox News that he favored a constitutional amendment to end automatic birthright citizenship. But Sen. Graham isn’t leading this effort. The primary vehicle for ending automatic birthright citizenship is Rep. King’s H.R. 140, which would only change the federal statute.

Reporters have a hard enough job these days without handing down Supreme Court decisions. If Rep. King is successful in passing H.R. 140, it will likely force a Supreme Court decision. Until that decision is handed down, journalists might relieve themselves of the burden of judgment by attributing any opinion on the question of the constitutionality of H.R. 140 to its source. Reporters can further clarify the issue for their readers by noting that only a ruling from the Supreme Court can put an end to the debate.

Jeremy Beck is the Director of Media Standards Project at NumbersUSA.